by Tracey Paleo~
Sometimes the actors just have too much to do. There’s too much going on and it’s hard to follow as is the case with the west coast premiere of Early and Often, written by Barbara Wallace and Thomas R. Wolfe, currently playing at the Open Fist Theatre.
It’s Chicago, 1960. The election of JFK hangs in the balance and there’s a lot more at stake for Democratic Precinct Captain Art Ruck. He has a cushy job with the Park District and plenty of girlfriends, but when Ward Boss John Flannery announces a vacancy in the state assembly, Art will stop at nothing to get the seat, including hiding out a dead body and betraying the Democratic Party that fostered his career. It is a time when there is a code of honor in politics, meaning there are good guys and bad guys, though the good guys do bad things to prevent the bad guys from having their share of the goods…or something like that.
It’s a difficult job living up to this intricate and stylized, period, screwball comedy. There are flavors of Dick Tracy meets the Daily Planet and The Man Who Came To Dinner. Throw in some Three Stooges along with The Producers and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. You’ve got a show. It’s a bit mushed. In fact, it was even hard to tell that it was a comedy right up to almost the very end of the first act.
The gags are heavy, often played so straight or on the other hand overplayed for the laughs, that it takes a while for this show to “warm up”. The dialog is ‘yelled’ throughout mostly by the girls as if they wouldn’t be heard – which is definitely what is happening story-wise. It is the 1960s after all and liberation or any potent voice for women is hard to come by even for powerhouse actress Amanda Weier whose dead pan complaints about not getting respect or reward never ceases to punch up this piece several notches, every time she enters the stage. The guys are tough but the women of Chicago are tougher!
Mr. Wolfe, a brilliant and prolific writer has penned more than a few recognizable episodes of the hilarious hit TV shows Murphy Brown and The Faculty. But somehow this production has difficulty ‘finding its way.’ It seems a problem with the direction of the play which squarely falls upon director Ron West who regularly stages elsewhere, Second City This Week at The Second City Hollywood. Sure actors can develop a character from outside in starting with appropriate costumes, of which all of these characters are endowed thanks to spot on costume designer Kellsy MacKilligan, but add the difficultly of the the actual body language of the era and along with the tough Chicago-ease language, it can fall down quickly. And it does.
The hilarity is at times lost as is the overall chemistry with the ensemble who more than once during this production feel disconnected from each other on the stage. Except for the bright and shiny penny of a campaigner Marty Collins jovially played by Mat Lageman who opens pre-show with making calls on the pay telephone, shaking hands, cracking jokes, entertaining the audience and wildly giggling as he hands out business cards attempting to win over potential voters for the upcoming election. Heck he probably would have even kissed a few babies had any been in the theatre. It’s a great act. Hands down one of the best interactive openers an unsuspecting audience could experience and the strongest character in the production, albeit short-lived.
The play does finally pull together in the second act recognizably as a funny bone and stops feeling like a board game of CLUE. But there is a bit more work to be done here. Open Fists’s, Early and Often has enormous potential to be a far greater show than it is currently.
One thing this show does have is the right amount of hard core energy to make this play go, go, go, keeping the momentum at a clip. Some well-played characters were the priest. Although the writing was predictable and not completely new, Conor Lane was blessedly funny with every exasperated confession and outcome he is doomed to withstand from the church confessional box. Also Bryan Bertone seems to embody the character of Art Ruck with finesse and style.
Early And Often is preformed Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm through May 26th, 2012
The Open Fist Theatre is located at 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038 just east of Vine Street
Reservations online at http://www.openfist.org